It has been said that poetry is the un-sayable said. But this isn’t true. There are occasions in human experience when even poetry, the most potent form of language we humans have, cannot invent the words necessary to convey the unspeakable truth.
We have witnessed such an occasion in recent days. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th stunned us, once again, with an inexplicable act of violence and evil. In the immediate hours afterwards, the most common response I heard in the news and on social media was a paralyzed silence.
“No words,” wrote one of my most eloquent and voluble Facebook friends.
But people wanted to say something, to offer some expression of the terrible loss of life, the terrible violation of the sacrosanct holy land of childhood, the terrible knowledge that evil can pierce us to the quick and leave us wounded, naked, and lost. We wanted to console ourselves, to insist that goodness & love triumphs over malignity & hatred. In the absence of words, people began circulating images—beautiful, powerful images of grief-stricken Madonnas, of weeping Christs, innumerable incarnations of the fragile human form contracted and contorted, tongue-tied in an agony of grief.
When our son turned five, we decided to give him a pair of hamsters. On his birthday—a cold and snowy day in early January—I picked him up from morning kindergarten, drove slowly home, and led him by the hand into our warm house. Waiting inside were balloons, cake, and a multi-level miniature plastic playground with two hamsters inside. My husband and I stood by, anticipating his response of surprise, wonder, and delight. Instead, our five-year-old child peered inside the cage, burst into hot tears, and began wailing inconsolably, “I want to BE one!”
We were mystified—both in that inexplicable moment and for years afterward.
One day, while I was reading the letters of poet John Keats, I received some small insight into this mystery. The young Keats would invest himself so entirely in the books he was reading (and in the lives he was living) he would become one with the creatures and emotions he encountered. Reading Spenser, he would hunker over and extend his arms in imitation of the “sea-shouldering whales” the master poet wrote of—watching the birds outside his window, he would imagine himself scratching and pecking in the gravel alongside them.
This “negative capability” Keats so prized — the impulse to negate The Self and become The Other, to inhabit a state of being perceived outside oneself—had overwhelmed our small son when he first set eyes on his hamsters, amazing little beings he had never seen before. Pierced by their beauty, his capacity to become them was outstripped by his desire, his five impassioned, puzzling words proclaiming the power and lamenting the limits of his imagination.
“It’s like being alive twice.”
This is what Basho, the 17th century haiku master, once said about lyric poetry. He left behind his life as a samurai warrior in order to become a poet, setting aside his sword to take up his pen, abandoning the pursuit of death to pursue life.
In the cicada’s cry
There’s no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.
To know a state is to know its opposite, and haiku invites poet and reader to experience both in the same instant of time with an intensity telegraphed by its brevity. And so the poem, like the sound of the cicada (most evanescent of creatures), celebrates life and heralds death. Here is the in-between space, the negatively capable niche, where Basho takes up residence and writes from.
Haiku forbids excess. The poet has 17 syllables (or fewer) in which to say, not the un-sayable, but what can be said. There is no room for explanation, only impression. Haiku gives the fleet glimpse instead of exposition, a quick picture in place of a thousand words.
Won’t you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.
The sparseness of haiku suits its subject—the finding of plenty in the midst of dearth, of presence in the empty fact of absence, of affirmation amid the cry of lamentation.
For a lovely bowl
Let us arrange these flowers
Since there is no rice.
And what are “these flowers” that substitute for food if not words—bright blooms we cannot eat, that won’t sate our human hunger, yet feed the ear and eye? And what are haiku but small bowls of roses offered on the altar of our mortality, momentary flashes of Being that enlarge and amplify our own?
Stabs the darkness.
And so Basho wields his pen, a scalpel instead of a sword—his wounding delicate, surgical, survivable. Pierced by beauty, alive once and alive twice, we become more fully ourselves…heron and leaf, hamster and human, grieving mother and grieved-for child.